“Selling Our Souls for Dross”

Sobaka’s Notebook

by Cali Ruchala

It began ordinarily enough for what’s being billed a merchant’s revolt: a dispute about taxes, about trade, about “contraband.” Only, in Uzbekistan, “contraband” is broadly defined as any product which might sustain a citizen’s life, when the citizen is not related to Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov.

Over the last three years, since I was last in the country, the Uzbek authorities have been receding back to their Bolshevik roots. Ordinary trade – the buying or selling or trading of milk, or clothing, or foodstuffs on a person-to-person basis – has been all but outlawed, with just enough negligence to ensure that their millions of rather wretched citizens somehow find a way to get by. Bazaars were closed in November 2002 to weed out “corruption.” It did no such thing but it ensured that these potential dens of espionage and anti-Karimov activity were suitably smaller and easier to monitor when they were re-opened.

Payments once made in cash are now forced through the state-controlled banking sector. Since the government oversees the flow of money, it often arbitrarily obstructs or delays ordinary transactions as a crude way to fight inflation. It’s not helping. Since August, anecdotal evidence has it (since the official predictions always promise sunshine), prices have gone up by as much as 25% across the board.

In Kokand, they finally had enough. If it had happened in 1984 rather than 2004, the US embassy in Moscow might have released a circular sternly drawing attention to the misery of the Uzbek people under Communism. But since Uzbeks now blanch under our kind of totalitarianism, hardly a word was uttered by our sentinels of freedom and other Yale graduates about the November 1st riots which began in the troublesome Ferghana Valley and soon spread in a wave of looting and hurled stones across the country.

Those stones, to a romantic, might be said to be the first blows that will knock the arrogantly evil Islam Karimov r?gime off its pedestal. Thanks to the almost insane policies of the Americans for the last decade, however, what replaces it will almost certainly be as awful.

Throughout the 1990s, the Americans had very little to do with Uzbekistan. Central Asia was, as the policy wonks and professional freedomologists told us, “in transition”. This was a good enough alibi to shell a parliament with tanks, as Boris Yeltsin did. And so it provided enough political cover for Islam Karimov to outlaw the peaceful opposition and drag his dissidents through the jails or across the borders of the country. The “old opposition,” as they’re even now being called today, is mostly based in Europe now, as none of the countries bordering Uzbekistan feel quite secure enough to harbour their neighbour’s enemies.

Since then, we’ve seen a never-ending comedy of fixed elections, referenda extending the president’s term, and other initiatives invariably supported by an overwhelming majority. The government of Uzbekistan controls the four legal opposition parties, and the head of the Central Election Commission feels smug enough to state that “there is no opposition in Uzbekistan,” and that “the elections will be democratic, irrespective of the opposition’s participation.” The essential contradiction between his two statements notwithstanding, these can be taken as essential truths in Uzbekistan. For like George Orwell’s Oceania, when the government of Uzbekistan says things are true, it makes them true.


The methods by which lies are made true in this proud ally in the War on Terror, this essential cog in the Machine of the Willing, might seem gratuitous, but a lurid description is necessary.

The body of one dissident, Muzafar Avazov, was photographed after he had died in government custody at Jaslyk prison. The Department of Pathology at the University of Glasgow, studying photographs of his body, determined that he had been boiled to death. He had been immersed in a vat of some kind of boiling liquid, and not merely scalded. The pattern of his burns revealed a tidemark scalded onto his body, with heinous burns below.

One could go on, but reputable organizations have entire folios filled with accounts such as this (check out the one about Fatima Mukadirova – Avazov’s mother – who was imprisoned after her son’s story became public). Karimov has declared war against his own impoverished people. That’s bad enough in and of itself, but it’s shocking that the United States is reaping the “benefits” of this closeted murder of an entire nation.

Article IV of the UN Convention Against Torture obliges all signatories to pursue criminal charges against torturers. Uzbekistan is certainly in violation of this, since torture is undeniably a state strategy to keep Karimov and his clan on top. The question is, how much of this information garnered by torture is being passed on to the West, and how seriously are we taking it?

According to rogue British Ambassador Craig Murray, who has been repeatedly lambasted by the Karimov regime for his frank assessments, the information is “useless.” Nevertheless, according to a memo of his which was leaked to the press (in the West: there’s of course no free press in Uzbekistan to speak of), “Tortured dupes are forced to sign confessions showing what the Uzbek government wants the US and UK to believe – that they and we are fighting the same war against terror.

“This is morally, legally and practically wrong. We are selling our souls for dross.”

For memos and speeches such as this, in October 2004, Murray was suspended from his post. The Uzbek government had presented a list of some 18 accusations against the British ambassador, from seducing virtuous Uzbek visa-seekers to driving his Land Rover down a flight of stairs. It’s a pathetic joke, but what is alarming is that the US or UK would take anything Karimov’s toadies say seriously.

Try as they might, they can’t muddy the issue. According to Murray’s memo, these “confessions” were passed on to Britain’s MI6 by way of the CIA. The Agency had them because they’ve developed a sickeningly cozy relationship with Karimov’s apparatus of repression – just as they had with the Shah of Iran’s SAVAK.

It hardly matters if they’re in the same room, holding down the poor wretch while Karimov’s men work him over, or if they hold the rope that lowers him into the vat of boiling liquid (metaphorically speaking, you understand). If the boys from Langley are walking away all smiles with the product of this industrious labour, we’re not just partners in the terror of this despotic khan, but we’re actually treating confessions made under torture as serious intelligence. The ramifications are tremendous – the naivete, appalling.

And, anyway, as they told us after the horrors of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal were revealed, we’re against this sort of thing, right? I mean, Bush looked in the camera’s red eye and told us he does not condone torture.

So why – according to our chief ally’s ambassador – are we eagerly reading through confessions of no doubt farcical al-Qaeda plots which have been obtained by boiling people alive?


Uzbekistan’s Islamic threat, of course, is now real. Like his lies, Karimov has made them real. His government’s persecution of ordinary Muslims, the “old opposition” and whatever chutes rise out of the mud of his police state has forced dissent underground – down where the real Islamic nasties live. Islamic fundamentalism, which was almost unknown to the vast majority of Uzbeks until a few years ago, is being looked at as a real alternative – a better one, at least, than what Muzafar Avazov had to suffer.

The Karimov r?gime is fond of manipulating the United States by claiming that the Islamic movement in its country is in bed with al-Qaeda. If you listen carefully, however, you’ll also hear them say the same about the “old opposition,” the shattered Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (now stripped down to less than two hundred stragglers marooned in Western Pakistan), and the unknown, mysterious elements responsible for bombings in March and July 2004. Exaggerating the threat, inflating its importance, and conflating it with al-Qaeda has been Karimov’s stock in trade – no less important than his forgery of economic data and restrictions on any form of free enterprise – for security in his increasingly radicalized country. But now the threat is real and, thanks to Karimov, growing by leaps and bounds.

And if we can read any significance in the bombing of the Israeli and American embassies in July, they hate us just as much for what we’ve done to prop up their true adversary.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan – and not Belarus, which is now America’s favourite post-Soviet whipping boy – is a grotesquerie of economic reform. Collective farms still function – the managers have merely given short-term leases to their tenants, who occupy the social and economic space of sharecroppers in the old American south. Vast sectors of the economy remain in government hands, and what’s been privatized has actually been “privatized” – placed in the trusty but incompetent hands of members of Karimov’s political clan. There is, in fact, not one area in which Uzbekistan has honestly moved forward since independence. This is pretty clear: yet the discontents within Uzbekistan are finding their only receptive audience in the underground.

On December 26th, Uzbeks will be rounded up to vote again, and the official tallies will once again fall completely out of whack with reality. The United States dreads these blasphemies of liberty almost as much as Karimov does. For a few days, they’ll have to issue statements of “concern” about the way Erk, Birlik, and the other parties of the “old opposition” were prevented from participating, about flagrant irregularities, and so on. You can almost hear the testiness in the State Department spokesman’s voice as he assures a few bored reporters that the Department will take this all into consideration when they dole out this year’s aid bonanza – a fantastic hunk of change by regional standards which is being cannibalized at a ferocious pace into Karimov’s private bank accounts.

And anyone who might be impetuous enough (or unpatriotic enough) to remind the sentinels of freedom of these matters later will suffer the fate of Craig Murray.

Uzbeks, unfortunately, already voted – with stones. If they wish to carry it any further, or somehow survive the repression which will inevitably follow, they’ll have to go underground, where others rule.